Calgary’s new mayor, Naheed Nenshi, has called for a charter for Edmonton and Calgary.
The idea is a good one, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. Across the province, all local (municipal and public school) government should enjoy the benefits of a “charter” relationship with the provincial government.
Until about 20 years ago, the relationship between the provincial government and local governments was generally characterized as a (more or less) “respectful partnership”. Among other features, local government had access to a broader range of taxes, with two benefits. They could respond to local mandates; and, they could tax more generally or more pointedly, whichever represented good public policy.
“Local mandates” are the things desired locally that local people have the capacity to do for themselves. It is another way of saying, “self-government”. It is another way of saying that the people who are closest to the issue and most likely to live with the issue are the people who should make a decision about the issue, act on their decision, and live with the consequences.
Broadly speaking, local government has had its capacity and its worked sucked up, by (and to) the provincial government, in the past 20 years. School boards have had no general right to tax since 1994: very often, they can’t keep community schools open in the evening if they want to. For municipal government, general taxation is narrower now than it was 20 years ago, and the result is a heavier and heavier burden on residential properties. For both school boards and municipal governments, more and more funding comes to them in envelopes, with conditions attached.
Many Albertans would be surprised to know that, according to the provincial government, locally elected representatives are not accountable to their electorate: they are accountable to the provincial government. In Calgary, Mayor Nenshi could not be removed by an unhappy electorate, at least not between elections: he could be removed by the Minister of Municipal Affairs.
Local elections, according to the provincial government, are a useful means by which the public advises the provincial government who should be part of local government, subject to the will of the Provincial Government.
No wonder people in rural Alberta fight so tenaciously to hang on to electoral dominance of the Legislative Assembly. They are sophisticated citizens and they are under no delusions about the flow of decision-making and resources. In the context of the current provincial political culture, local government is being marginalized, trivialized, and disrespected. And this has nothing to do with demographics. Calgary and Edmonton are feeling the pinch as much as is any town or village.
One possible response would be to reconsider local government (both small and large), and give it more responsibility and more resources. We can grow the capacity of local government. We can restore meaningful local self-government. We can do more to ensure that decisions are made, as close as possible, to the grassroots.
In September, 2007 the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta met with Premier Stelmach and made just such a proposal. A copy of the Local Government Charter they proposed can be found at: http://www.public-schools.ab.ca/Public/MO_Stelmach07.htm
The Charter proposed by the PSBAA took the form of an amendment to the Alberta Act, with the proviso that subsequent amendments could only be made following a majority vote by Albertans in a referendum.
The principles embodied in the Local Government Charter included:
1. Local elected government (including counties and municipal districts, cities, towns, and villages, and public school divisions and districts) are an enduring feature of civil democracy in Alberta and cannot be abolished by unilateral action of the legislature. (Separate school systems have independent and pre-existing constitutional protection.)
2. Locally elected government is not a third order of government, independent of the provincial government. Local government is an integral part of the provincial order of government but, like some other “branches” of government, it enjoys some constitutional protection. Local government is, therefore, an agent of the Crown in Right of Alberta.
3. The Government of Alberta may make laws relating to the organization and operation of locally elected governments, subject to two general limitations. They may not disestablish or remove any locally elected government, or unilaterally change the boundaries of any local jurisdiction; and, any provincial laws affecting locally elected governments must be reasonably justified in a free and democratic society and conducive to effective local government and the promotion of civil democracy.
4. Locally elected governments are accorded reasonable local autonomy, including the right to adopt bylaws strictly of local application and the right to borrow money.
5. Local elections must be determined by local voters and locally elected representatives may only be removed by the local electorate or by a court: the number and compensation of local representatives is solely a matter of local determination.
6. Employees of locally elected representatives are accountable solely to the local community as represented by the locally elected representatives.
7. Locally elected governments may levy taxes within their jurisdiction. As well, or alternately, they may enter into a revenue-sharing agreement with the Government of Alberta and/or with adjacent local governments.
8. Alberta may delegate any matter which it considers to be a provincial jurisdiction to locally elected governments, in which case the government of Alberta is obliged to ensure that appropriate resources are also provided to accomplish the delegated matter.
9. Locally elected governments are entitled to own property and to enjoy all the associated rights, without interference by the provincial government (except by a process of expropriation including due process and just compensation).
10. Comprehensive revenue sharing (between locally elected governments and the government of Alberta) will be implemented.
11. No amendment to the Local Government Charter is effective unless and until the substance of the amendment(s) is approved of by a majority of Albertans voting in a plebiscite. (This follows the model of the Constitution of Alberta Act, 1990, enacted by the Legislative Assembly of Alberta.)
The idea of a Local Government Charter certainly merits discussion across the province. The principles put forward by the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta may be a good place to start.